Many only scratch the surface of the true depth and variety of Costa Rican Cuisine. With the ubiquity of rice and beans nestled at the heart of many dishes, it is an easy, yet unfair characterization to label Costa Rica food as bland. If you choose to travel the well-worn tourist trail then you surely will encounter your fair share of casado; a typical dish consisting of gallo pinto (rice and beans) a piece of meat, a side vegetable, and a fried plantain to round out the dish. With a side salad or coleslaw, this dish (named for its functional role in the married man’s life) is indeed what you will find from every kitchen table to soda (diner) throughout the country. Were you to ask any Costa Rican what their favorite meal is they will almost certainly answer with arroz con pollo (rice and chicken) usually with a Russian salad. Many of these dishes will come with a small, warm tortilla and there is most certainly a bottle of Lizano sauce on the table. For those not in love with cilantro, brace yourself. In Costa Rican cuisine this herb is used frequently, and liberally. Typically used as a garnish or the “je ne sais quoi” ingredient to be found in the most authentic Mexican salsa and Tex-Mex recipes, Costa Ricans put it in nearly everything. Lasagna, salad, fish dishes, you name it and you will find cilantro in it at any given stage of the cooking process. Most of these flavors and combinations found in the Central Valley are somewhat mild. Spicy, rich food is by request only and rarely served even then. If you expect a Mexican style approach to cooking, you’re on the wrong continent. Spicy food is often found closer to the coastlines.
Costa Rica cuisine is generally very well-rounded and healthy. Several fruits and vegetables are incorporated into most meals. The abundance of these ingredients, coupled with a near year-round growing season on most produce, everything from yucca to ayote and zapallo to chayote are staples on the side of fresh chicken, beef, fish or pork. Little picadillos are diced vegetables and meat spiced and garnished and often served in the form of gallos. Tomales dominate the Christmas landscape and families up and down the narrow streets share and compare their holiday cooking efforts freely. Chifrijo (rice and beans with chicharrones, which are fried pork skins) and bocas (bite sized plates of fried foods) are common in bars and, in some cases, served cheaply with specials on pitchers of the local beer.
The Caribbean has its own very distinct cuisine. Starting with the rice and beans, the typical process involves cooking coconut milk into the rice to give it a sweet flavor. There is no fear of the habanero peppers, and their mastery of cooking freshly caught fish and lobster in mango and onion sauces is simply to die for. Often times 3rd generation Jamaican recipes still live strong in the kitchens and restaurants of the Limon province. Some carefully guarded, complex blends of spices to create life-altering jerks, rubs, and sauces make a trip for the food experience alone worth the 4 hour drive through the mountains from San Jose well worth it.
The expatriate population’s influence on the food savvy is growing, fast. With a rapidly expanding number of new residents from Argentina, Spain, Italy, Peru, and the United States, the cuisine has become much more worldly and sophisticated in the past 5 years. With that and the Costa Rican’s desire to join the affluent and upper-middle class societies, the palate of the Tico is changing too. Restaurants, steak houses, and eateries that were once the playgrounds of the rich and elite are now popping up everywhere and crowded with locals looking to break away from the gallo pinto that Mom’s been sliding under their chins for far too long. If you take the time to do a bit of research and make a few reservations, you can experience not only the best of Costa Rican cuisine, but some great tastes of the world through the creative kitchens of expats and chef’s expressing their love of “Pura Vida” on your plate.
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